Information Overload: Historians’ Edition

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Jonathan Rees

Norge Refrigerator advertisement, 1953.
So I have a new book out.  It’s on the history of the American ice and refrigeration industries and the research and writing only took me thirteen years. Why would anybody work on any subject that long?  Well, to be fair, I have published three other books over that same time.  Still, I developed a few serious problems along the way that really slowed the entire writing process down to a crawl.

The first problem was picking the right level of focus for my work.  The very first documents I looked at were ice and refrigeration industry trade journals.  These are giant periodicals, available bound together in only the largest libraries, and written primarily for the refrigerating engineers who used to make what is now a mostly forgotten industry function.   Being something of a perfectionist, I was determined to understand everything they understood, from how ammonia compression refrigeration works to what the heck “raw water ice” was.  As I no longer live near any of the largest libraries in America, getting time and resources to do this research, let alone understand what I was reading, took an awful lot of time.

The second problem I faced was figuring out how to turn the story of these industries into a coherent narrative.  Biographers have the luxury of beginning at birth and ending with death, or maybe their subject’s legacy.  Describing the history of an entire industry, as well as all of its related industries, proved much tougher.  My solution was to adopt a refrigerating engineering conceit known as a cold chain, which is basically another way of saying that I started at the point of production and ended at the point of consumption.  I didn’t figure that out until 2006.

So what explains the extra seven years?  Part of it was information overload.  Sometime around the time I figured out how to organize everything, Google Books went from being a pet project to a research revolution.  All of a sudden, it was like being back at the University of Wisconsin again.  I could get any obscure tome I wanted faster than it used to take to walk to campus and hit the fourth floor of the Engineering Library for my precious trade journals.  With so much more to see, I felt obliged to read everything I could get my hands on.  I know it sounds like I’m whining, but the final book really is much better because of that effort.

The main reason for that was a choice I made in 2009.  I decided to make the book global in scope.  Yes, it’s called Refrigeration Nation (which is a reference to the United States) but to prove that America has always been refrigeration crazy I had to at least make a pass at what was going on throughout the world, which I did mostly (but not exclusively) through American sources.  That took more time still because even though I had more information at that point than I knew what to do with, I hadn’t been collecting the foreign evidence I needed to adopt this approach until very late in the game.

Research is fun.  That’s why I don’t regret a moment I’ve spent working on this thing.  However, I’m also convinced I’ll never write another book this same way again.  In an age when nearly every published source is both searchable and right
there at your fingertips, there is much less incentive to read everything available because whatever breadth of knowledge you develop will be far less impressive than it once was.  While some people might think this development a sad one, I look forward to reading history books that devote more time to organization, analysis and just plain old good writing.

Whether I just managed to produce such an animal is up to my readers to decide. 

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University – Pueblo.  Refrigeration Nation:  a History of Ice, Appliances and Enterprise is making its way to distributors now.  If you can’t buy one immediately at your local bookseller or favorite online book store, it will be available very, very soon.

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Should Historians Use Twitter? Part 1

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Heather Cox Richardson


But since I still have more than 136 characters left, here’s my take on the Twitter question:

I have had many conversations lately with historians based in America about whether or not they should use Twitter. There are three complaints about it. First of all, there is a general impression that Twitter users are narcissists who feel obliged to inform the world every time they eat a bagel. Second, there is a sense that it is a waste of valuable time.  Third, younger scholars are concerned that presence on social media might hurt them on the job market.

These are valid concerns, but they are, to my mind, vastly outweighed by the advantages of Twitter both for individual historians and for the profession.

Let’s start with the profession. Yes, there are plenty of people who use Twitter to issue a play-by-play recap of their most mundane activities. But there is no law that says that’s the only way to use the medium. Twitter works best for historians when participants use it to direct followers to content. This works in two ways. Tweets can mention a new archive or recently discovered source or the significance of a date. They can also be used to call attention to a longer blog post or article—or even a book—on a historical topic. Imbedded links make the longer format instantly available.

It is striking how few established historians in America use Twitter this way. Historians in Canada and the UK are all over Twitter, claiming history for professionals either within or outside the academy, while established historians in America are simply not claiming any territory. There are exceptions, of course. William Cronon posts great links.  So do Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; David Armitage; Tera Hunter; Kevin Levin; and certainly many others I’ve missed. But their heroic ranks can’t compare to the sheer numbers of Twitter users based in Canada and the UK.

If American-based historians don’t take up more oxygen in public spaces, their expertise will continue to be ignored, and the importance of their work discounted. A good way to combat that denigration is simply to show up.

A second benefit to the profession is that Twitter offers a place where people on both sides of the tenure divide can exchange ideas. Another thing I have found shocking about Twitter is how many junior people are active there, and how few senior people are. Following as many junior scholars as I have found suggests to me that they have a completely different set of concerns and skills than people safely ensconced in the academy.  Early career historians are all over digital technologies and new archives. They are terribly worried about the rise of adjuncts and MOOCS. And they have no idea how they will find permanent employment in academia . . . or even if they want it. In my experience, these are not conversations that happen often among tenured folks. We worry much more about research, narrative techniques, and dealing with administrators. People on both sides of this divide have a great deal to offer each other; indeed, it seems to me fatal to the rapidly-changing historical profession NOT to be talking.

Finally, Twitter offers to historians outside perspectives. It’s an opportunity to stand in the same virtual world as a whole bunch of really smart people and hear what they think is important. Aside from the posts I saw yesterday about the problems of transnational history, teaching American history in a diverse classroom, Bruce Bartlett pointed me toward Bloomberg’s recap of the five years of America’s financial crisis, and NPR announced that Alan Lomax’s archive is now on-line. All of this information will inform my teaching and scholarship, and none of it would have come to my attention if it hadn’t flitted across my Twitter feed.

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American Studies Research Seminar at Northumbria University

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Randall Stephens

Excuse a little promotional material. Here's the lineup for our American Studies research seminar here in Newcastle Upon Tyne for the first semester, 2013.  The new American Studies program is up and running with our first cohort of undergrads.

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"What the devil are they doing"? English Authors Writing about America

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Randall Stephens 

Oh, my autumn almanac
Yes, yes, yes, it's my autumn almanac.

I like my football on a Saturday,
Roast beef on Sundays, all right.
I go to Blackpool for my holidays,
Sit in the open sunlight.

- Ray Davies, The Kinks, "Autumn Almanac" (1967)

An American version, "Fall Almanac," just wouldn't have cut it.  Ray Davies has long been an observer of the differences--linguistic, cultural, and otherwise--of the American and English scenes.  Sure, The Kinks were as English as clotted cream, cricket, Yorkshire pudding, and bad weather.  But Ray and brother Dave spent quite a bit of time living or touring in both countries. 

I've spent my share of time in both countries, too. I live in Newcastle Upon Tyne. (Which, in itself, is almost like another country compared with the Kinks North London stomping ground.)  So I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of Ray Davies new book Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road: The Story (October, 2013).  Here, so says the promo material, the famous mod rocker and 60s icon "tries to make sense of his long love-hate relationship with the country that both inspired and frustrated him." The book promises to take "us on a very personal road trip through his life and storied career as a rock star, and reveals what music, fame, and America really mean to him." 

These kinds of travelogues have long been bestsellers.  Authors of them have included helpings of criticism along with a dash of admiration.  Maybe the sheer number of these volumes has something to do with the cultural and political special relationship between the two nations, the shared language, or just a general curiosity.  Think of the Americans who write about Britain--humorist Bill Bryson or former ambassador Raymond Seitz.  Or the English who write about life in the U.S.--academic Terry Eagleton and, most obviously, Alistair Cooke.

This is a literary trail that winds all the way back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when many of those who lived in America were becoming more than just relocated English people. I'm most interested in the English who made their way to the colonies or the U.S., pen in hand,
The "British despot" beaten again, 1897.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
ready to comment on American bragging and tobacco chewing.  They asked: What accounted for the growing distance between the Mother Country and the New World? Was there such a thing as an American character?  Or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in his What I Saw in America (1922): "We say that the Americans are doing something heroic, or doing something insane, or doing it in an unworkable or unworthy fashion, instead of simply wondering what the devil they are doing" (7).  Many of us natives wonder the same thing. A great collection of these accounts--spanning the centuries--is Allan Nevins' America through British Eyes. (Published in 1948, it's now a difficult volume to come by).   

If you're endlessly fascinated by such romps through America's teeming cities, pig-choked streets, and highways and byways then check out these gems:

Douglas S. Robertson, ed., An Englishman in America in 1785 being the Diary of Joseph Hadfield (1933)

Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832)

Harriet Martineau, Society in America (1837)

Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (1842) 


John Benwell, An Englishman's Travels in America: His Observations of Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States (1853) 

Anthony Trollope, North America (1862)

William Archer, Through Afro-America: An English Reading of the Race Problem (1910)

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Recognition For William Mahone

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Kevin M. Levin*

[Crossposted from the Civil War Memory blog]

Last week's post on the Civil War Memory blog about the unveiling of three plaques honoringVirginia’s post-Civil War black politicians has me thinking about my old buddy, William Mahone. While Mahone is best remembered as the “Hero of the Crater” his role in launching and leading the state’s most successful third-party political movement has largely been forgotten. In Virginia it was intentionally ignored because what came to be known as the Readjuster Party (1879-83) was bi-racial. The arc from Mahone’s role in preventing a Union breakthrough outside Petersburg that left scores of black Union soldiers massacred on the Crater battlefield to creating an opportunity for the largest number of black Virginians to vote, go to school and serve in positions of local and state government just a few short years later could not be more striking. Could anyone in 1865 anticipate that it would be a former Confederate general who would bring Reconstruction to Virginia?

Is it time to recognize William Mahone publicly in some shape or form? I say yes, if for no other reason than it would help to bring into sharper focus a piece of Virginia’s history that places yesterday’s dedication in its proper context. In other words, post-Civil War Virginia makes absolutely no sense without a reference to Mahone and the Readjuster Party.  It matters, not simply because it’s part of Virginia’s history, but because it has something important to teach us as well. The period following the official years of Reconstruction (1865-1877) did not inevitably lead to Jim Crow. Interracial cooperation was not only possible in the South between 1877 and the turn of the twentieth century but a reality for a few short years in Virginia. Virginia’s Reconstruction was not forced on it by “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” but by legitimate stakeholders, who believed that a brighter future could be forged for both races. Finally, there is something juicy about all of this being introduced by a former Confederate general.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Admittedly, Mahone is not the most likeable person. In fact, in all the years that I researched the man I never caught more than a fleeting glimpse of any emotional life beyond that facial here. (BTW, I still can't picture the man laughing.) We like to be able to empathize with those historical figures we recognize and commemorate. More to the point, I still don’t fully understand why Mahone decided to forge a bi-racial coalition. Was he motivated by lingering bitterness over his railroad going into receivership in the early 1870s – a turn of events that Mahone blamed on Virginia’s Conservative elements. Was Mahone simply thirsty for political power and understood that interracial cooperation offered the best chance of success? Finally, to what extent was he genuinely interested in advancing the cause of the state’s black population? I don’t know, but I suspect that it’s a combination of all three as well as other factors. Mahone was a complicated guy and his motives were not likely pure, but than again, who among our most beloved public servants could make such a claim.

I don’t know what a proper commemoration of Mahone might look like. The city of Petersburg owns Mahone’s postwar home, which now serves as a library and was interestingly enough the scene of a civil rights protest that led to its integration in the 1960s. His boyhood home in Southampton County is owned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Perhaps some kind of plaque could be unveiled on the capital grounds in Richmond. The form it takes doesn’t really concern me much.

What matters to me is the act of once again taking ownership of a small piece of history that we no longer have a reason to ignore.

Kevin M. Levin is an Instructor of American history at Gann Academy near Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is currently writing a book on the history of Confederate camp servants and the myth of the black Confederate soldier. Levin’s essays have appeared online in The New York Times and the Atlantic as well as popular magazines and academic journals. Levin has been blogging at Civil War Memory since November 2005.

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Digital Humanities Roundup

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E.H. and K.N.C., "Where nobleman and knave meet," Economist blog, September 7, 2013

IN THE print edition this week we look at “Kindred Britain”, an amazing digital humanities website that traces relations between 30,000 British people. Is it possible to resist frittering away hours in front of the computer screen while examining the remote relatives of George Washington (originally British, of course) or the literary friendships of Mary Shelley?

The project harnesses data about the ties among people in an innovative way. Historical individuals are presented as dots connected to each other on a network map. Colour-coding suggests how figures are linked, say, by marriage or profession. Rolling over the dots brings up a wealth of information about the people. A scrolling timeline across the bottom of the site lets users skim through the ages. A map of the world lets people scan by geography.>>>

"Rutgers to Host Lecture on Emerging Field of Digital Humanities," Rutgers Today, September 12, 2013

As the humanities continue to integrate computer technology and traditional methodologies, the evolving field of digital humanities signals a future of unlimited research implications. With this evolution, scholars invariably face the challenges of understanding, utilizing and incorporating these latest technological advances into their respective disciplines. Thanks to an informative lecture at Rutgers–Camden, these issues will begin to get a little clearer – byte by byte. [7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 30.]>>>

Michelle K. Smith, "New online digital atlas of Derry includes maps and historic illustrations," Irish Central, September 11, 2013

The Royal Irish Academy has produced a new online atlas of Derry/Londonderry that includes maps and illustrated drawings. Mayor Martin Reilly will officially launch the online atlas at an event at the Tower Museum on Wednesday, September 11.

The digital atlas has received much praise ahead of its launch. The Londonderry Sentinel quoted him, “This is a fantastic way to view early plans and maps of key streets and areas within the walled city.”>>>

"New initiative teaches importance of digitalization," Daily Tar Heel, September 5, 2013

UNC has indicated through the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative that it is fully committed to creating programs that strive to meet and solve the complex problems presented in a constantly changing world.

Big data and technological trends have indicated that there is a strong need for people to understand the consequences of digitalization.>>>

"NSF and NEH support efforts to preserve languages threatened by extinction," NSF, September 10, 2013

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced today $3.7 million in awards as a part of a joint Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) program. . . .

The 2013 DEL awards support digital documentation of over 38 endangered languages spread across 19 language families spoken in south, central and northern Asia, Africa, Papua New Guinea and the Americas.>>>

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September Issue of Historically Speaking and the History of History Departments

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Randall Stephens

In the coming weeks Historically Speaking subscribers will receive the latest issue.  In it we have essays on American political history and reform (John Frederick Martin and F. S.
Naiden), objectivity in the study of history (Judith Walzer Leavitt), Atlantic World history (Trevor Burnard), photography and the Great War (Von Hardesty), an obituary of Pauline Maier (Chris Beneke), and Evangelical Catholicism (Mark Edwards).  Alongside those are interviews with scholars concerning American religious history (Larry Eskridge), and the critical years of 1979 (Christian Caryl) and 1913 (Charles Emmerson).

The September issue also includes James M. Banner's fascinating essay "The Almost Nonexistent History of Academic Departments."  Writes Banner: "Department histories are almost nowhere to be found."  Why is that so?  Says Banner:

The history of education has never found a strong place in history departments. Those aspiring historians seeking entry to graduate programs, even those with a nascent interest in the history of education, have not been without good sense in defining their interests to graduate program admissions committees as being, say, in the social history of ideas if they are interested in academic culture or, say, in the history of the social composition of academic faculties or student cohorts if they have a general interest in academic institutions. Those of their mentors who might wish it were otherwise, who would like to see students pursue the history of academic departments—and there are a few, even if very few, of these—have found it a losing game to try to attract their students to such subjects. It is thus a distinctive and hardy student who proposes to undertake a dissertation on the history of a university department in any discipline.

Two other forces are at work against the pursuit of departmental histories. One is the simple fact that institutions do not have memories; only their members and employees do. If faculty members fail to take an interest in their histories, academic departments are not likely to be the subject of institutional histories. The histories of departments are carried within their members’ memories, not within the institutions themselves; once their members resign or retire, the history they embody leaves the department with them. Only concerted efforts to capture and preserve those memories can avail.

But a second reality working against department histories is the disposition of most faculty members toward their own departments and colleagues. Academics are practiced in, sometimes champions of, gossip. They nourish themselves on intramural disputes, on information about their colleagues, on battles over appointments. That is generally all to the good, for if kept within collegial bounds, gossip and inside information are constituent parts of the equilibrating mechanisms of all institutions. But in this case, private knowledge gained and imparted through gossip stands in for formal historical knowledge and is not recorded or caught on paper or tape as a resource for formal future histories unless it happens to be set down in personal correspondence or diaries that find themselves into library collections. If not, that knowledge is allowed to vanish into air and thus be of no use to future historians. . . .

Read more by subscribing to the print issue or by logging on to Project Muse.

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Remembering World War I in the Northeast of England

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Randall Stephens

The Response by Sir William
Goscombe John. Unveiled by
the Prince of Wales in 1923.
Ernest Hemingway didn't mince words.  The author of A Farewell to Arms claimed that World War I "was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied. So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought."  Seeing the ravages of war up close, he served with distinction as an ambulance driver in Italy.  Gertrude Stein coined the phrase "lost generation," which applied to Hemingway and other wayward souls like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

What accounts for the gap between Hemingway's tone and the gallant, heroic one of war memorials?  Did region have a role to play in war remembrance?  How do we make sense of the conflict now that the last veterans have passed away?

As we near the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I Don Yerxa has been conducting a series of interviews on the subject in the pages of Historically Speaking.  Watch for other essays, forums, and interviews in the coming months.

Here at Northumbria University my colleague in the History Programme, James McConnel has put together a stellar series of lectures to commemorate the war in the northeast of England.  This region responded in greater numbers, per capita, than any other.  So, the memories of the war take on a special meaning here.  Below is the full list of the lectures and the dates.

Tynemouth World War I Commemoration Project. (Lectures to be held at 6pm at Northumbria University, Sutherland Building, Northumberland Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 8JF).

9 October 2013
Professor Sir Hew Strachan, All Souls College Oxford
"The Ideas of War, 1914"

12 November 2013
Emeritus Professor Martin Pugh, Newcastle University
"Women and the First World War: Emancipation or Domesticity?"

3 December 2013
John Lewis-Stempel
"Six Weeks: The Life and Death of Junior Officers on the Western Front"

British Empire Union poster, 1918.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
21 January 2014
Emeritus Professor John Derry, Newcastle University
"Hindenberg and Luddendorf: A Brilliant Parnership?"

18 February 2014
Dr Edward Madigan, CWGC
"The Better Part of Valour: British Understandings of Courage during the First World War"

4 March 2014
Professor Gary Sheffield, University of Birmingham
"Douglas Haig, the First World War, and the British People"

8 April 2014
Professor Andrew Lambert, King’s College London
"The War at Sea from the July Crisis to the eve of Jutland"

8 May 2014
Professor Joanna Bourke, Birkbeck College London
"'Sharp Shooting Pains that Make Me Shout Out': A History of Disability and the First World War"

For more, click here.

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Syllabi Creation, History Courses, and More

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The  blog will take a short break as the semester kicks in.  In the meantime, have a look at these posts on teaching, baseball history, syllabi creation, questions for the survey course, American pre-history, and classroom decorum.

For other posts on teaching, check out these essays, forums, and interviews in Historically Speaking.

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